Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spent roughly 30 minutes Wednesday fielding questions from reporters, but he really didn't offer much substance when it came to the national parks. Although, he did make a curious statement about the dire condition of the National Park System and the $825 billion stimulus package being debated by Congress.
Despite the Centennial Challenge launched by the Bush administration and his own recognition of the National Park Service's estimated $9 billion backlog of maintenance and infrastructure needs, the Interior secretary called the stimulus package a "one-time opportunity" to make significant inroads to that backlog.
"I would hope that at the end of all of this we will have set the foundation to address what I would call my second 'moon shot,' that is, to rebuild and enhance our National Park System, our national landscapes," said Secretary Salazar. "I think this is a one-time opportunity to get that done."
And if the stimulus package doesn't get the job done? Then what? Good question.
Now, to be fair, it would be a bit much to expect the secretary, who's been on the job for about a week, to come prepared to face dozens of reporters, some in an auditorium at the Interior Department's Washington, D.C., headquarters, others from around the country listening on the phone, with detailed answers to their questions.
Still, he has been a U.S. senator for a while and is well-familiar with many of these issues from his work both in the Senate and in his home state of Colorado.
For instance, Secretary Salazar acknowledged that the national parks, as well as conservation areas around the country, need a "tremendous amount of work." But he didn't lay out any plan for tackling that work, other than to say the pending economic stimulus bill working its way through Congress could help chisel away at those needs.
"I was struck by the amount of work that needs to be done to restore Ellis Island to the point where it can be opened to the public and preserve ... that particular icon of our American history," said the secretary, who had visited the monument late last week.
"There are thousands of those kinds of places around the country and I want to do everything we can to move forward with restoring and enhancing and preserving those places. I'm hopeful that as we move forward with the stimulus package that there are many job-creation opportunities within the restoration efforts" to accomplish some of that work.
Secretary Salazar also could not provide any details on the fate of Everglades National Park and its Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan other than to say it perhaps could benefit from stimulus dollars.
"We are looking at the stimulus bill and the numbers and where it is we would have projects that could in fact use the money within the criteria that ultimately would be established by the Congress," the secretary said. "I have not yet had a briefing on the Everglades projects and how they would fit in with respect to the stimulus possibilities."
Secretary Salazar did say, as he did last week in a meeting with Interior Department employees, that he planned to review the Bush administration's change in gun laws in the national park. And he also said it would be inappropriate at this point to move forward with commercial oil shale development because there are too many unanswered questions regarding its impact on the landscapes of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Back in December 2007 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a 1,400-page document titled the “Oil Shale and Tar Sands Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement." This EIS was notable not only for its length, but also for the BLM’s recognition of how great an impact tar sands development would have on the landscape.
Under the proposed plan, BLM would make more than 400,000 acres of public land available for development, including land located adjacent to or near Glen Canyon, Canyonlands, Dinosaur National Monument, and Natural Bridges National Monument. More than 25,000 acres are adjacent to Canyonlands and Glen Canyon in the “Tar Sand Triangle.”
Now it would seem that EIS is DOA.
During his get-to-know-you call, Secretary Salazar also said:
* His staff was reviewing the BLM's late-December leasing of oil and gas parcels near national parks in Utah;
* The Interior Department could play a significant role in helping the country address climate change through exploring and developing clean energy sources
* On the stimulus legislation, he said he's been providing input to Congress for about a month.
"One of the things that I do hope comes out of the stimulus package is a significant infusion of dollars into the National Park System, and its units because there is a huge backlog of $9 billion," said Secretary Salazar. "We need to make sure that what we get from the stimulus package for our National Park System is money that can be effectively spent on behalf of the American taxpayer."
Now, concerning that stimulus package, little publicly is known about how it would help the national parks. Much talk has been made of the park system's various and widespread infrastructure needs, but little has been mentioned about personnel needs or the poor condition of many of the Park Service's collections or the in-holdings that should be acquired.
What is known, though, is that the stimulus package, as currently written, requires funds to be spent by September 2010, so perhaps dollars could be used to hire seasonal staff
One item that apparently won't get attention if the House of Representatives has its way is the much-needed restoration of the National Mall. A few amendments that aim to remove $200 million in funding for that work are pending in the House. Those familiar with the politicians believe that chamber will indeed strike that funding, possibly as soon as this afternoon. If so, it would fall to the Senate to rescue the funding, although that, in the end, still would require House approval.